by JS Stephens
Copyright © 2003, revised 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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Disclaimer: This is an original story.
Rosemary Perry wandered aimlessly through the bookstore, trying to convince herself to finish up her Christmas shopping. It wasn't working very well, despite the precise list that her daughter had given her over a month ago. It just didn't feel like Christmas without her husband, Rick, who had died that summer, and it didn't help that the songs over the PA system were some of their favorites. She stealthily wiped off a tear that started sneaking down her cheek, hoping that no one noticed the old lady in the science fiction section, having to wipe away her tears. "Oh, Rick," she thought, "you were the one who usually bought the books for our grandchildren, I miss you so much."
"May I help you?"
Rosemary turned to the speaker, a middle-aged woman whose name tag proclaimed that she was Violet. "Yes, maybe you can," she answered, list trembling in her hand, "I'm looking for these books and am not quite sure if they are considered science fiction, fantasy, or just plain fiction. Would you take a look at them?"
"Sure, be glad to," Violet replied as she pulled the reading glasses from the top of her head. Settling the glasses on her nose, she peered at the list, then started smiling. "Good choices, I take it that you're buying these for the people named on the list?"
"Yes, my grandchildren, David and Angie. My daughter takes after her father, categorizing everything, but somehow, she forgot the genre this time. Or maybe it's just that Rick would look it up before we went shopping, he was a cataloger and Angie followed in his footsteps, except that she's a reference librarian, not a cataloger." Rosemary stopped abruptly, realizing that not every cared about the differences in different types of librarians, it was just something she had lived with for so many years. Enough woolgathering, what was the young lady saying?
While Rosemary was struggling to pull away from memories of her husband, Violet was pulling books off shelves left and right, making a neat stack at Rosemary's feet. Surveying the list, she announced, "Okay, that's everything. Your granddaughter wanted The Mists of Avalon, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, and Priestess of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Your grandson wanted The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Would you like for me to help you take these to the checkout lanes? I'm afraid we don't have the mass market paperbacks, just the larger trade editions for all of these."
"No, that's fine, thank you, I appreciate your assistance. I think they'll be happier with these editions, Rick always said to choose the bigger format of paperbacks, that they held up better," Rosemary said, relieved.
"You're very welcome. Now, if you'll follow me to the front of the store, we'll get you taken care of." Violet picked up the books, making sure that Rosemary was following her as they approached the front of the store. She waited in line with her, then handed the books over to the cashier and added, "Merry Christmas, ma'am."
The older woman smiled. "Merry Christmas, and thanks again for all of your help, Violet."
"My pleasure." The saleswoman smiled, then leaned over and whispered something to the cashier, then walked off. Rosemary wondered briefly what Violet had said to the young man, but was too busy pulling out her checkbook and ID to wonder too long. The resulting total seemed a little low to her, especially since she had forgotten and let their discount card lapse, it had always been Rick's job to keep up with these things. She wrote out the check in her precise handwriting, trying not to sniff too loudly as she blinked back the tears that threatened again. She gathered up the sacks and walked out the door to her car. Now all she had to do was to wrap the books.
Violet Andrews walked into the sanctuary, wondering why she was choosing to go to the Christmas Eve service after so many years of avoiding church. At least this was a different town than the one that she and Kim had lived in for twenty years, when she was offered the job of regional manager for the bookstore, she jumped at the chance to leave behind the memories of her life with Kim, cut short by the unexpected heart attack.
The bookstore manager found her mind wandering back to the scene this morning, with the woman she had helped in the store. She smiled as she recalled the surprise of the cashier when she told him to give the lady her manager's discount, a full ten percent more than the discount card allowed. She had gone back later and found the check with the precise writing and the name: Rosemary Perry. The name made her think of her favorite singer, Rosemary Clooney, and how she and Kim had saved for months to go to Miss Clooney's last concerts in Hawaii, just the year before the singer's death. Just two years before Kim's untimely death.
While she was thinking this, Rosemary walked into the sanctuary, intensely missing her husband, saddened that she wouldn't see her family until the next day. Her daughter's family was driving in tomorrow morning after spending today with her son-in-law's family. Her son had gotten leave, but had chosen to fly to his girlfriend's house first, and wouldn't come home until New Year's, then would fly back to Iraq in just a few days.
The pews were filling up rapidly with boisterous children, sleepy adults, squealing teenagers, and a sprinkling of older folks. She was starting to think that she should turn back and go home when she saw the woman who had helped her in the bookstore earlier in the day. Rosemary noticed the sad expression on the woman's face and the yawning expanse of empty pew beside her. "Maybe she's lost someone too," Rosemary thought, deciding to go sit by her. After all, one shouldn't be alone at a Christmas Eve service. "Hello, I'm Rosemary, you helped me this morning," she said as she sat down gingerly, ready to leave if she wasn't really wanted.
"Rosemary? Like Rosemary Clooney, eh?" Violet asked. "Please, sit, I'm Violet. Did you get the books home okay? Did your grandchildren like them?"
"Yes, like Rosemary Clooney, and I don't know about the books, I won't see the children until tomorrow when they get into town. Were you waiting for anyone, Violet?" Rosemary asked politely.
"No," Violet answered wistfully, swallowing hard against the grief that threatened to overwhelm her. Taking a deep breath and ruthlessly shoving down her emotions, she asked, "Is your husband joining you?"
"No," Rosemary said, clenching her hands together, "Rick died this summer. It's my first Christmas alone. How about you, dear, do you have anyone to spend Christmas with? Or am I being too nosey?"
Violet unconsciously mimicked Rosemary as she clenched her own hands together in her lap. "No, Rosemary, I'm all alone. My partner died this summer." She started to say something else, but the minister got up to start the service.
The service was lovely. Violet was pleased to note how well Rosemary's voice blended with her own on the carols, a rich alto balancing her own light soprano, just like Kim's used to do before they were asked to leave their hometown church. The entire congregation was invited for communion and Violet offered Rosemary her arm as they threaded their way to the altar. Rosemary took the arm gratefully, though she really didn't have any trouble with balance like some of her contemporaries, it was nice to have that small bit of human contact.
Rosemary's mind wandered back to the short conversation, realizing that Violet didn't say "husband", she said "partner." Partner, like Susan and Anne? Susan, the rebellious library page who worked with Rick all during her high school years, to come back years later with her master's and a lovely woman who had calmed her down and helped her get through school. She put aside the thoughts as the lights started dimming for the traditional candle lighting portion of the service, where they sang "Away in the Manger" accappelo, voices soaring as the sanctuary gradually glowed brighter as the hand held candles were lit, the light passing from person to person until the entire congregation held a candle, lighting the way for the Babe to come down once again.
Violet's vision started blurring as she held her candle upright for Rosemary to light hers. She sniffed hard, trying to contain the tears that threatened again, unable to sing as she fought to keep her composure. She felt a warm hand slip into hers and looked up to find Rosemary smiling at her, gently squeezing her hand. Violet impulsively lifted their joined hands, kissing the back of Rosemary's hand, whispering under the music, "Thank you, Rosemary." She realized that she had just kissed a stranger's hand, a woman, a straight woman, in a church at that. She felt a blush racing across her face, but Rosemary said, "You're welcome, Violet."
The last notes of the hymn faded away and the minister stepped up to give the benediction. Rosemary joined the congregation in the response, feeling Violet's trembling through their joined hands. As the house lights came back on and the candles were blown out, she let go of Violet's hand long enough to blow out her own candle and reach for her coat. She impulsively asked, "Violet, do you have anywhere to go tomorrow?"
"No," Violet replied, managing to choke back the emotions as she reached for her own coat, "I don't have enough time to go home this year, and I can't face..." She stopped short of saying, "I can't face Kim's family without her." She busied herself with her coat and gathering her purse when Rosemary stopped her, asking, "Would you like to come to my house for Christmas? I know we're strangers, but we've both lost our loved ones this year, and no one should spend Christmas alone."
Rosemary waited for the answer, knowing that she really shouldn't ask someone she didn't even know home, but it wasn't fair to spend the holidays completely alone after the death of a spouse. She finished fastening her coat, gathered her purse, and tucked her hand in Violet's arm, subtly steering the younger woman through the crowds until they were out in the parking lot. Violet unlocked her car and tossed her purse in, then turned back to Rosemary, intending to simply thank her for the offer, but found herself enfolded in a warm embrace. The tears that had threatened all evening forced their way to the surface as she clung to this kind stranger, feeling Rosemary's silent tears joining her own. For the first time since she'd moved away, she felt like someone understood her pain, her secret sorrow.
The storm was brief. Rosemary pulled away first, pulling tissues out of her purse and handing some to Violet, which set them both to laughing at the practical gesture. "I'm sorry for your loss, dear. How long were you with her?"
Violet answered, "Seventeen years." Then, hesitantly, "You understand?"
"Yes. I was married to Rick for nearly fifty years." She cupped Violet's face in her hands. "Violet, one thing my husband always taught me, that was love is love, no matter who the two people are."
"Oh," Violet replied. "Thank you, Rosemary." She closed her eyes for a moment, leaning her forehead against Rosemary's, then answered, "I think I will come to Christmas with you. Thank you." After they exchanged addresses, Violet watched as Rosemary got into her own car and drove off. She sat there for a long moment before turning the key, pondering this Christmas miracle, the miracle of acceptance. Suddenly, she burst into song as she started her car, singing, "Love came down at Christmas, love all loving, love divine..." This was what it was really about, love and acceptance, and a stranger had shown her both.
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